Iban – Religion and Expressive Culture
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Religious Beliefs. Religious beliefs and behavior pervade every part of Iban life. In their interpretations of their world, nature, and society, they refer to remote creator gods, who brought the elements and a structured order into existence; the bird-god Sengalang Burong, who directs their lives through messages borne by his seven sons-in-law; and the popular gods, who provide models for living. Iban religion is a product of a holistic approach to life, in which attention is paid to all events in the waking and sleeping states. The religion involves an all-embracing causality, born of the Iban conviction that “nothing happens without cause.” The pervasiveness of their religion has sensitized them to every part of their world and created an elaborate otherworld (Sebayan), in which everything is vested with the potential for sensate thought and action. In Iban beliefs and narratives trees talk, crotons walk, macaques become incubi, jars moan for lack of attention, and the sex of the human fetus is determined by a cricket, the metamorphized form of a god.
Though the gods live in Panggau Libau, a remote and godly realm, they are unseen, ubiquitous presences. In contrast to the exclusive categories of Judaism and Christianity, “supernaturals” and “mortals” interact in all activities of importance. In contrast to the gods who are more benevolently inclined towards mortals, Iban believe in and fear a host of malevolent spirits. These spirits are patent projections onto a cosmic screen of anxieties and stresses suffered by Iban: the menacing father figure, the vengeful mother, the freeloader, and becoming lost in the forest. Iban strive to maintain good life and health by adherence to customary laws, avoidance of taboos, and the presentation of offerings and animal sacrifices.
Religious Practitioners. There are three religious practitioners: the bard ( lemambang ), the augur ( tuai burong ), and the shaman ( manang ). Individually or in teams, bards are invited to chant at all major rituals. They are highly respected men, capable of recalling and adapting, as appropriate, chants that go on for hours. The augur is employed for critical activities such as farming or traveling. The shaman is a psychotherapist who is consulted for unusual or persistent ailments.
Ceremonies. Iban rituals ( gawa, gawai ) may be grouped into four major categories: (1) one dozen major and three dozen minor agricultural festivals; (2) healing rituals, performed by the shaman, commencing in the bilik and progressing to the outer veranda; (3) ceremonies for the courageous, commemorating warfare and headhunting; and (4) rituals for the dead. Iban of all divisions perform rituals of the first two categories. Ceremonies to honor warriors have assumed greater importance in the upper Rejang, and rituals for the dead have been much more elaborated in the First and Second divisions of Sarawak.
Arts. The Iban have created one of the most extensive bodies of folklore in human history, including more than one dozen types of epic, myth, and chant. Women weave intricate fabrics and men produce a variety of wood-carvings.
Medicine. Though they have a limited ethnopharmacology, Iban have developed an elaborate series of psychotherapeutic rituals.
Death and Afterlife. Life and health are dependent upon the condition of the soul ( samengat ). Some illnesses are attributed to the wandering of one of an Iban’s seven souls, and the shaman undertakes a magical flight to retrieve and return the patient’s soul. Boundaries between life and death are vague, and at death the soul must be informed by a shaman that it must move on to Sebayan. Crossing “The Bridge of Anxiety,” the soul is treated to all imaginable pleasures, many of which are proscribed for the living. After an undetermined period of revelry, the soul is transformed into spirit, then into dew, in which form it reenters the realm of the living by nourishing the growing rice. As rice is ingested, the cycle of the soul is completed by its return to human form. Gawai Antu, the Festival of the Dead, may be held from a few years to 50 years after the death of a member of the community. The main part of the festival occurs over a three-day period, but takes months or even years to plan. The primary purpose of the festival is to honor all the community’s dead, who are invited to join in the ritual acts. The festival dramatizes the dependence of the living and dead upon each other